After spending a week in a training camp environment, UCLA entered game-planning mode Monday with the first teams facing scout teams as the Bruins prepared to face Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 31 in San Francisco.
And for offensive tackles Mike Harris and Jeff Baca, that meant getting ready for No. 85.
Neither Baca nor Harris could name Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus by name, but they had seen enough film on him to know why No. 85 is a consensus All-American and the winner of the Bill Willis Trophy as the nation's top defensive lineman. He leads the nation in sacks with 14.5 and forced fumbles with nine -- one short of the NCAA record.
"Going up against a guy like that you have to bring your A-game," Baca said. "He’s really quick. He’s quick off the ball, he’s got some great moves, great hands, plays with great leverage. He’s an all-around great football player."
Mercilus, a 6-4, 265-pound junior, is the first Fighting Illini defensive player named first-team All-American since Kevin Hardy in 1995. He is tied for fifth in the nation in tackles for loss with 19.5 and is two sacks shy of the Illinois single-season record held by Simeon Rice.
"I’ve had a few weeks to prepare for him so that’s what I’ve been doing, watching films and tendencies," Harris said. "He’s a high-motor guy. If my technique is not right then I won’t be able to get my job done so I have to go in there on every play and make sure my fundamentals and technique are proper so I can try to dominate."
Harris, a senior, said he is relishing the opportunity of going up against a future NFL player so that he can measure his own ability and hopefully improve his stock as he enters the NFL draft season.
"I know this is a very important game for me, especially if I want to continue my career at the next level," Harris said. "I know a lot of scouts are going to be watching this game and I’m excited for the challenge."
Interim coach Mike Johnson said No. 85 has been a major part of the early game planning.
"He’s a big-time player," Johnson said. "He’s one of those guys who has great lateral movement. He’s quick off the ball. It’s a guy that we have to account for, a guy that we have to know where he is at all times."
A few tidbits from practice:
Linebacker Patrick Larimore was at practice for the first time since undergoing surgery to repair a torn ligament and bone chips in his right thumb. Larimore did not practice but said he was hopeful to be back by Friday and was probable for the bowl game.
Alex Mascarenas needed eight stitches after getting run over on the sidelines when Jordon James and Randall Carroll crashed in to him during a practice drill. Mascarenas, sidelined because of a concussion, was observing from out of bounds when the play came his way. He ended up with two major gashes, one below his eye and one above it. He is not going to play in the bowl game.
Linebacker Sean Westgate was not dressed as he continues to recover from a concussion. Johnson said his status for the bowl game was "still up in the air."
Safety Tony Dye did not attend practice as he tries to recover from an ankle injury suffered against USC. Johnson said Dye "has a good chance to come back" for the bowl game. Defensive lineman Damien Holmes also missed practice as he attended a personal matter.
Grades from the fall quarter are beginning to trickle in and that means the coaching staff is on the lookout for anyone who might be academically ineligible for the bowl game. Johnson said he feared there were one or two guys who might fall into that category. "I think they are still trying to finalize the final list for the guys," Johnson said. "Grades are coming in today, tomorrow. So by the middle of the week I’ll know more about who is going to be here and who are the potential problems. I think there’s one or two guys that may be in question and I’m just waiting to get more information."